Seth Walker reinvents the blues

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Seth Walker gives an uptown spin to the blues.
Seth Walker gives an uptown spin to the blues.

by Jordan Green

Seth Walker sang the praises of Biscuitville and waxed nostalgic about Yum Yum Better Ice Cream on Spring Garden Street during a homecoming stop at the Blind Tiger in Greensboro on June 26.

Raised on a commune in Alamance County by parents who were classically trained musicians, Walker spent two years at East Carolina University. Falling under the spell of tapes of his uncle’s blues radio show in Jacksonville, Fla., he loaded up a Volkswagen bus and headed to Austin, Texas. He cut short an academic career at East Carolina to immerse himself in the magic of T-Bone Walker, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Mance Lipscomb.

Walker has also lived in Nashville, and for the past couple years has made his home in New Orleans, compiling a kind of Holy Trinity of three of the great American roots-music cities into his repertoire of experience. The grit of New Orleans shows up in Sky Still Blue, which was released on June 10 on the Royal Potato Family label.

It was a kind of dinner-club audience of middle-aged and older couples clustered around tables at the Blind Tiger, albeit with drinks instead of entrees, to witness the return of the prodigal son. With some coaxing, a number of couples would peel off from time to time to shag-dance. As one seasoned listener noted, some of Walker’s song are likely to appeal to beach-music fans.

That’s more of a commentary on the ability of beach music to absorb an array of genres into its wheel than a reflection on Walker’s music. With the help of upright bass player Joshua Hoag and drummer Jim Starboard, Walker performed his songs with a steady groove and a chromatic sense of melody, but General Johnson & the Chairmen of the Board it was not.

Dressed in matching gray vests and all but the drummer be-necked in ties, the band cut a dapper impression, opening the set with “Easy Come Easy Go” from the new album.

Walker is more a crooner than a shouter, more Jimmie than Stevie Ray, more uptown than field holler. Authenticity is a difficult distinction to make in an era when virtually every style of blues has been categorized and influence transacts through YouTube videos more often than vinyl records passed hand to hand, much less juke-joint apprenticeships. But Walker has just as legitimate a claim on authenticity as any other player born after 1975.

He’s always favored a more urbane jump blues of the kind pioneered by T-Bone Walker in the 1940s, which has been overshadowed by the more popular and grittier Chicago style developed by Muddy Waters, or even the Mississippi hill country blues that has come to the fore in more recent years.

Starboard and Hoag provided a supple and buoyant rhythm, making a clean, uncluttered platform for Walker’s crisp guitar leads. Starboard played with the subtlety of a jazz drummer — suitable for the sophistication of Walker’s vision. On “Before It Breaks,” from Walker’s 2012 album Time Can Change, the music snapped to conclusion with each completed phrasing. The music swung rather than dragging the beat.

Walker stretched his own stylistic range with “Grab Ahold,” from the new album, a gorgeous gospel song that featured Starboard’s capable vocal accompaniment.

There’s a kind of strut in Walker’s music and an insouciant charm in his vocal approach, a reminder that when this type of music was new, it wasn’t a hardscrabble expression of impoverished subsistence, but a cosmopolitan testament to self-confidence and hustle. It could be as smooth as Kanye West or as hard as Jay Z, depending on the requirements of the moment. Walker finger-picked some songs, displaying a rhythmic intelligence that served notice that neither the stinging lead solos of Freddie King nor the soaring vibrato of BB King’s playing represent the full range of the idiom.